Journal: This Morris Minor Traveller Lives A Perfect Life In Petworth

This Morris Minor Traveller Lives A Perfect Life In Petworth

Florence Walker By Florence Walker
September 19, 2016
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Photography by Ted Gushue

There is no greater place on earth to witness the strength, elegance, and beauty that the human body is capable of than at the Royal Opera House in London. But even with the speed and precision that the dancers with the Royal Ballet exhibit, feet aren’t always enough to get around.

I’ve been lucky enough to watch my friend Nathalie Birkett traverse the stage of the Royal Opera House through countless ballets. When she’s not wearing a tiara and sporting a tutu, she can be found at home deep in the English countryside, surrounded by apple trees, rosy brick farm buildings, and an utterly British and charming set of wheels. Tucked away in a barn, keeping a colourful Gypsy caravan company lives a Morris Minor Traveller, affectionately known as the ‘Moggy’, that she and her sister share.  

Florence Walker: What are your memories of driving?

Nathalie Birkett: My sister, Genevieve, doesn’t know anything about cars and I know less! In our childhood we were bundled into the back of my Dad’s Volkswagen camper. Driving often entailed drama, we broke down with hilarious regularity but it was jolly and I always reflect on it with a smile and warm affection.

FW: What was the first car you owned?

NB: This one! As adults we both lived and worked in central London and didn’t own cars until our ’30s.

I’ve been a ballerina with the Royal Ballet for 14 years. My husband Tom and I split our time between central London and Petworth in West Sussex. My grandad, everyone refers to him as Nandad, is 89 years old and generously gifted us his car this spring as he can sadly no longer drive. Genevieve my sister and I are very close in every sense, she lives just 15 minutes away with her partner from Tom and me. Initially, I think we were all worried about having the responsibility of such a vehicle, but I’m pleased to say it has been a happy focus and joy.

FW: What’s the Traveller like to drive in?

NB: She is a character unto herself. We use her for pootling around at weekends, and she’s brought a peace and blithesome spirit back to travel for us that juxtaposes the aggressive pace of modern day transport, where efficiency and speed are the ultimate goals. There’s a sort of palpable innocence around her and the era she was born out of.

She’s smart, she’s classy and tasteful, yet a tad comedic and just like us, eccentrically British.

I perform at the Royal Opera House, and rely on buses or walking when in town, but when I’m home in Sussex it’s the moggy that we’ll buzz around in.

There’s a grace to this kind of driving that, well, feels like it cuts all the crap away, quite frankly. It’s simple, sophisticated, and wholesome. We love her and all her oddities.

FW: Has she been restored?

NB: She’s a born again beauty, after years of being abandoned, Nandad rescued what was left and set to work in his garage in north Devon. He worked on it with his friend, Jon. Nandad is a retired woodwork and metal teacher so has a vast knowledge of building practically anything. He made our family washing machine after reading up on how Hoover constructed them!

The car was delivered to the old airport at Dunkeswell in 2005, where John, who is ex-RAF, worked on planes. Jon worked on the mechanics and Nandad tackled the wood restoration. He had to purchase all new wood to replace the rotten framework which he delicately fashioned and treated. It’s what gives her such an impressive glow today. It has the original upholstery. Very little welding was required but they stripped it to its shell. It still has the original engine, which had a top & bottom overhaul and the braking system was converted to power assisted. Recycled parts were used wherever possible. An ammeter pressure gauge and temperature gauge were fitted, and the dynamo was replaced.

The whole project took four years to complete, the cost of the woodwork being the biggest outlay. He added a CD player, discreetly tucked into the glove compartment.

Rather elegantly, he put a hamper in the back, which I love. It’s as if we’re always about to stop off for a picnic.

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